Thursday, 14 February 2013

Norman Mercenaries Take a Bite Out of Italy

Mercenaries by Jack Ludlow
I find that when it comes to historical fiction not enough is written of this era or these people. The Normans. What little is out there encompasses the events surrounding and including the Norman Conquest of England more than anything else. There is also some scattering of historical fiction that is set with the Saxons pre Conquest, and then the Normans post Conquest. But unless you are willing to skip over into the historical romance and Chick lit historical fiction (which I am not), then even these are few and far between.
When I found Mercenaries I had little expectation and if I did expect anything, I did not expect much. I had heard nothing about the book or the two following books that make up this trilogy. I have never read a Jack Ludlow either so that was breaking new ground for me as well.
Despite all my reserves going into the book I found that I actually enjoyed it and for me it was a 4 out of 5 stars book.

Mercenaries is set in Italy mostly. Pre Conquest, pre everything that the majority of people associate the Normans with. And in my experience, the majority of people seem to think they came from nowhere a few years before they set sail for England and then assimilated and vanished soon after, which technically, in regards to the vanishing, they did. Being Northmen and Vikings by blood, that's what the Normans did best. Conquer, mix with the populace, assimilate and dilute their blood. They wiped themselves out by doing this, which isn't exactly a bad thing mayhaps as I have heard some speak of the Normans in the same breath as the word Nazis. I will give that debate a wide berth however.

Kicking off on the Norman and French border in 1033, we are introduced to our main characters as children, William and Drogo de Hauteville. Sons of Tancred de Hauteville. Real characters from history brought to fictional life. In fact most of Ludlow's characters are based on real men. Some I was familiar with, and some I was not.

The book does not stay with William and Drogo as children for long and within a hundred pages they are young talented warriors setting out to become mercenaries in Italy. They are successful in their new careers and soon cross paths with Guaimar, the heir to Salerno. Another real life character who was responsible for persuading the Emperor, Conrad Augustus, to clash with Pandulf of Capua.
Following this, William and Drogo find themselves moving on to new battle grounds against the Saracens, where they cement their reputations as formidable leaders and warriors.

The flaws of the book were not too aggravating. There is no flowery or poetic prose and I missed it. While the writing is technically okay, it lacked in historical description and the characters were rather one dimensional.
I also have a greivance with the edition I had. It was over 400 pages, but the font was more like a large print copy. Printed for those with poor eyesight. The spacing between lines was broad, and the font too big. I saw another edition had about 288 pages and I suspect that is the edition I would have preferred to read as the large font edition messed with my concentration. Took away some of my ability to absorb the story. This factor does not reflect in my rating though.

There is promise of a great trilogy here with the Conquest Series by Ludlow. And since this is an era that I have much interest in, which as mentioned earlier is oft neglected by historical fiction authors, I will definitely be going on to read the next two books in the trilogy.

- MM


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